5 Traits of a Responsible Volunteer ESL Teaching Program

Teaching ESL abroad gets a bad rap as being an easy way for young college graduates (or gap year students) with little or no other professional qualifications than native fluency in English to score a job abroad. It’s often advertised this way, both in the realm of voluntourism and with paid positions, and as a result people are catching on to the lucrative business that can be made with ESL teaching and learning. Not all of them are honest and don’t always have their students or teachers at the heart of their priorities. So, if you are considering teaching abroad as a volunteer, it really is OK if you have no previous experience, just make sure you choose a responsible program. Here are 5 important traits to look out for to make sure the program you volunteer with truly has their student’s education as their number one priority:


1. They pair inexperienced and short-term volunteers with veteran teachers

If you signed up to teach back home with no prior teaching experience or a degree in education, it’s doubtful that any school would let you lead your own class for two weeks. So why is this OK abroad?

Really, it shouldn’t be. We may, as native English speakers, have a better command of the language than local teachers, but they have been doing their job for years and have a better grasp of the curriculum, students’ levels, and classroom management. As a native English speaker, you are a great resource for the teacher and students and can make priceless contributions just by being a willing and ready assistant. This method is far more efficient, since inserting a volunteer into an established routine takes less training than teaching them how to be a teacher (or have them blunder through learning it on their own), and sustainable, since the permanent teacher remains even as volunteers change.

2. They run a background check

No matter if the teaching position is long term or short term or if you are working with children independently or as an assistant, every responsible teaching program should run background checks on prospective volunteers. The safety and well being of the children (this is, of course, assuming you are working with kids and not adults) should always be a top priority for the schools and programs. Running a background check is one way for responsible programs to make sure they are putting their students in contact with the right kind of volunteers.

3. They maintain long-term continuity of lessons

Especially if you are signing up to teach for just a few weeks, a responsible program will have a curriculum already in place to make sure that students aren’t being taught how to sing “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” with every new volunteer that comes in. They should be willing and able to communicate to volunteers what the students have already learned, what they should be learning now (even if loosely), and what sort of level they are at.

If there is no set curriculum or long term plan about what students are to learn, there should at least be some communication of what was already taught and students’ levels.  Essentially, the program should be monitoring what the students are being taught and making sure they are progressing through new material, and not repeating lessons unnecessarily.

4. They are transparent about where program fees go

For many volunteer teach abroad programs, fees may be involved. Sometimes they are pretty minimal, but can often be pricey and all inclusive. Whatever amount of money you are asked to pay, the organization should be able to tell you exactly where that money is being spent and prove it. You also shouldn’t be pulling teeth to try and get ahold of this information. If they are legit and responsible program managers, then it won’t be a problem for them to reveal how they spend your money — it will only further demonstrate that they are truly, and honestly, trying to fulfill their mission statement and educate!

5. They are respected and well received in the local community

Want to know the truth about someone? Ask their neighbors. The response the local community has to give about the program you are working for can be a big attestation for or against their legitimacy. Obviously, they are more likely to observe the comings and goings of volunteers and witness the true results of the program’s presence. It’s always a good idea to check with other local schools, NGOs, or community members in addition to looking at past volunteer testimonials to get an idea of the sustainability and effectiveness of their work. If community members are overwhelmingly enthusiastic about the program, you’ve likely got a good program on your hand. If they are reluctant to answer questions or don’t have many specific, positive things to say, be suspicious.

Of course, it isn’t always possible to get in contact with community members in advance, so do a bit of internet detective work. The more online presence they have, especially in volunteer and and teaching networks, the more likely they are a legit program and not a scam.

In the end, being a native English speaker is an incredibly valuable skill abroad and teaching is a helpful and rewarding way to volunteer. Like any work position, however, it is important to make sure you are working with a legit and responsible organization that takes care of its staff and students. Teaching is a professional endeavour, not just a nice way to spend a vacation, so hopefully you and your organization are treating your volunteer work as such. And of course, if anything feels sketchy, question it and speak out!

Jessie Beck